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Women in the Navy

Catalogue number 45143

WRNS Commodore 1946

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). The aim in 1917 was to substitute women for men on certain shore work within the Royal Navy and so freeing men to go to sea. A similar service already existed, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, doing, for example, secretarial work and driving, so releasing men for duty in the Army. The scope of work was initially clerical and domestic duties but as the service developed, WRNS were employed in servicing anti-submarine equipment, coding, aircraft maintenance and signals. With the end of the war, the service was disbanded in 1919. The service was reformed in 1938 with Mrs Vera Laughton Mathews as Director/Commodore and WRNS increased the scope of their technical skills in parallel with the technological advances of the time. In this photograph taken in 1946, the Director (second from the right) is accompanied by a Deputy Director and possibly two Deputy Assistant Directors, WRNS.

Verso: Gwyneth Lilecaine (sic) Summer 1946 Commodore Dame Laughton Mathews etc

12.6cm x 7.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 35248

A group of WRNS officers

This photograph shows a very smart group of WRNS officers accompanied by two wire-haired terriers. The officer's uniform first appeared in 1939 and consisted of a double-breasted jacket, a white blouse and black tie, a blue skirt, black stockings and laced shoes. The hat was a blue tricorn with a black band and the badge was a crowned silver foul anchor within a light blue laurel wreath. Ranks were indicated by light blue distinction lace with a diamond in place of the usual curl. Soft leather gloves completed the outfit.

13.3cm x 8.2cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 105024

WRNS ratings

Eight WRNS ratings sometime after 1942 when the much-detested soft brimmed hat had been replaced by the sailor's cap. The cap was worn cocked to the right when on parade and "at an angle not more than 18 degrees"! The WRNS bottom row, extreme right has a six star-shaped non-substantive badge on her right arm indicating that she is specialized to work in a particular department.

13.2cm x 8.4cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 65012

WRNS load a torpedo

A group of WRNS air mechanics in 1945 run a torpedo out of a hanger whilst a Petty Officer keeps a close eye on the operation. In the upper foreground are the clasps of a Fairey Barracuda to which the torpedo will be attached. Standard uniform was not adapted to this kind of work and the WRNS are wearing one-piece blue overalls. Their hair is held up in a headscarf and the blue edging of the square neck shirt can just be seen. Some of the WRNS look very young.

Verso: Text describing the role of WRNS air mechanics and stating that they service and overhaul practically all the aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm.

14cm x 19.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 31020

WRNS air mechanics, 1945

WRNS air mechanics are training to repair what appears to be a worn-out Fairey Barracuda. They are wearing overalls - quite a revolution for the time - with headscarves and white shoes!

Verso: A text describing how this work by the WRNS helped to establish Allied air superiority - the photograph is from 1945 - and that many of the women entered the service directly from school.

19.8cm x 14.2cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 65011

Armouring a Fairey Barracuda

Nothing seems to frighten these trainee WRNS as they winch 250lbs bombs up to the wing of a Fairey Barracuda. A Petty Officer - the same as in the torpedo photograph above? - supervises the winching operation from on top of the wing. The WRNS in the middle of the group has what looks like a specialist badge on the belt of her overalls.

Verso: A text underlines the important role of the WRNS in the Fleet Air Arm along with a description of the winching operation.

14.2cm x 19.8cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 101198

Maintaining navigation charts up to date

The title of this photograph from 1942 is "W.R.N.S. at work correcting charts, on board a submarine depot ship". Both WRNS have their specialist badge on the right sleeve. The thick black stockings help to keep warm whilst working although there is a small electric heater, bottom left. Behind the WRNS in the background we can see a gas mask bag but judging by its bulging size, it has more than just a gas mask inside!

Verso: "Picture issued March 1942" followed by a text about the role of a submarine depot ship.

19.4cm x 14.6cm Gelatin silver print


Catalogue number 102014

Specialist radio mechanics

Specialist WRNS radio mechanics first appeared in 1941 and their duties were to maintain and repair radio sets for ships but the majority of women were with the Fleet Air Arm servicing wireless and radar sets. The text of this photograph states "In some cases the girls go up in the machines to give the radio sets a thorough testing.". It must have been quite an experience for these young women.

Verso: "W.R.N.S. Radio mechanics" followed by a text about the radio branch of the WRNS.

14,2cm x 19cm Gelatin silver print

Catalogue number 105039

The Girls in Blue !

This newspaper article of 11th July 1941, describes the merits of the WRNS, the "Girls in Blue!". The peacetime careers of some WRNS are given - author, concert singer, artist, teacher and librarian. Many WRNS ratings came from the homes of sailors and fishermen. Bottom right is a WRNS wearing the hated "pudding basin" style hat. Bottom left shows a group of WRNS selected for service abroad. They are dressed in tropical uniform and this group was drafted overseas to Singapore as specialist wireless telegraphy operators. They were rapidly evacuated to Ceylon just before the Japanese invaded Singapore. By the end of the war, WRNS were present in most Naval stations abroad.

18.1cm x 26cm Printed newspaper article